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Betsy DeVos Watch: Cheerleading for Trump and School Choice

February 7, 2019

After the State of the Union address on Tuesday, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos took the opportunity to thank President Trump for his comments about “education freedom” and her own call for expanding School Choice in a statement released the same day

We decided this would be a useful opportunity to do a simply deconstruction of what Betsy DeVos had to say, which you will find here below.

 

 

Consumers Energy Super Bowl message was a shallow PR stunt designed to distract us from all the money the company makes from dirty energy

February 6, 2019

On Super Bowl Sunday, viewers in the Lower peninsula of Michigan saw a 90 second message from the CEO of Consumers Energy, Patti Poppe. The message was both an apology and a thank you to businesses and residents of Michigan, since the company asked people to turn their thermostat down.  

Such a statement from the CEO of Consumers Energy should be seen as a shallow PR move, especially considering what Consumers Energy represents. Consumers Energy is a company that has been profiting off of the public for decades, while manufacturing energy that has caused a great deal of harm to public health, to environmental devastation and to climate change.

While Consumers Energy likes to show that they have a diversified energy portfolio, the company has primarily manufactured energy through coal, which has been one of the worst forms of energy that humans have ever used

However, the company takes no responsibility for their role in destroying the environment, harming human health and adding to the climate change crisis. In fact, Consumers Energy now likes to talk about how they are a responsible corporation that embraces the Triple Bottom Line – People, Profit and Planet.

This was Patti Poppe’s message to those who gathered at the Econ Club of Grand Rapids in December. Local talking head Rick Albin did a short interview with Poppe before her Econ Club talk, where Albin said, “you are always looking at what is best for Michigan.” This type of uncritical thinking is what we are used to with the news media in West Michigan. Of course, the CEO of Consumers Energy would not be challenged at the Econ Club lecture, because the people who attend such functions share the ideological principles that Patti Poppe does, which of course is that Capitalism is Wonderful.

The Consumers Energy CEO commercial during the Super Bowl did generate a fair amount of Michigan news coverage, but it focused on what Patti Poppe had to say and less about the company. Sure, there was some criticism around residents having to turn down their thermostats, but the criticism was limited and narrow in scope.

According to Salary.com:

As President and CEO, CMS and Consumers at CMS ENERGY CORPPatricia K. Poppe made $6,862,295 in total compensation. Of this total $1,100,000 was received as a salary, $1,144,000 was received as a bonus, $0 was received in stock options, $4,263,888 was awarded as stock and $354,407 came from other types of compensation. This information is according to proxy statements filed for the 2017 fiscal year.

Imagine if people knew that the person who asked us to turn down our thermostats makes nearly $7 million a year.

Another relevant question for the news media to ask would be how much the company spends on lobbying and political contributions. According to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network Consumers Energy spent the following amounts on lobbying in Michigan during the past four years.

2015      $311,117

2016      $230,820

2017      $225,651

2018      $129,314 (for January – July)

At the federal level, Consumers Energy has spent $4,119.558 on political contributions since 1990 and $23,073,752 on lobbying since 1998, according to OpenSecrets.org

There was going to be a ballot initiative in 2018 for Michigan that was energy related, but Consumers Energy and DTE Energy struck a deal with the ballot organizers in the Spring of 2018 to keep the issue off the ballot. The deal would require both Consumers Energy and DTE Energy to commit to relying on 25 percent renewable energy by the year 2030. While some may see this as a positive step, it is grossly inadequate levels for renewable energy use, especially considering what the global climate scientific community has been saying. For instance, the US Global Change Research Program, which published its Fourth National Climate Assessment, makes the following statement in their summary of findings: 

Communities, governments, and businesses are working to reduce risks from and costs associated with climate change by taking action to lower greenhouse gas emissions and implement adaptation strategies. While mitigation and adaptation efforts have expanded substantially in the last four years, they do not yet approach the scale considered necessary to avoid substantial damages to the economy, environment, and human health over the coming decades.

In 2012, there was another ballot initiative called 25 by 25, which was calling for 25% renewable energy production in Michigan by 2025. Consumers Energy spent money to defeat the ballot initiative

Therefore, it seems pretty clear to this writer, that the message from the CEO of Consumers Energy was a shallow PR stunt designed to get the media and the pubic to focus on turning down our thermostats instead of critically assessing what the real function of Consumers Energy is……to make as much money as possible while harming human health, destroying ecosystems and making climate change inevitable.

Group that spent the most to oppose Voters Not Politicians ballot initiative is run by a DeVos operative

February 6, 2019

As the dust settles on the 2018 election, data continues to come out about which groups funded what ballot proposals.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network does an amazing job of following the money in Michigan electoral politics and their most recent article has some interesting analysis about who was behind the 2018 Michigan Ballot initiatives. 

What I found most interesting is that the group that spent the most money opposing the Voters Not Politicians ballot initiative, was the Michigan Freedom Fund. The entity created by the Michigan Freedom Fund, designed to defeat Voters Not Politicians, was Protect My Vote.     

You can see from the graphic here that the Michigan Freedom Fund was the largest contributor to this effort. The President of the Michigan Freedom Fund is Greg McNeilly, who also happens to be the Chief Operating Officer of the Windquest Group. The Windquest Group is one of the DeVos family’s business entities.

McNeilly, while he ran Dick DeVos’ failed gubernatorial run in 2006, once boasted how political donations are the most protected form of speech:

“Political speech is the most protected form of speech, and we need more people participating at higher levels. We should applaud anyone who is leading on that dimension and try to encourage greater participation in our great American experiment.”

Such a statement reflects McNeilly’s allegiance to the DeVos family fortune.

However, the main issue her, with the new data from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, is that the group that spent the most money to defeat Voters Not Politicians was a group that was essentially created by DeVos family money and is run by their most trusted political operative, Greg McNeilly. This is just the most recent example of how DeVos money infects electoral politics and promotes anti-union, anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ and pro-business policies in the state. Remember that, the next time you are tempted to think that the DeVos family does so much good for West Michigan.

Systems of Oppression, the GRPD and Celebrating Black History Month

February 4, 2019

Systems of oppression and power always make it a point to appropriate the images and messages of revolutionary politics. Corporations, political parties and other structures that have power over people often claim to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Black History Month.

Such appropriation is often seductive and subtle, but it is appropriation none the less.

Then there are entities like the Grand Rapids Police Department, which are not so subtle, which also claim to celebrate Black History Month. On February 1st, the GRPD posted the following text and image on the Facebook page – here on the right.

There are just so many things that are fundamentally wrong with the GRPD claiming to celebrate Black History Month. Such a claim is insulting and offensive. The text says they want to, “recognize African American Pioneers in the area of Law Enforcement throughout the month.”

It’s as if Black History Month can be reduced to celebrating anything as long as it involves African Americans. Well, lets take a closer look at the significance of the GRPD claiming to celebrate Black History Month.

First, the text also includes a rather innocuous quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Systems of power and oppression have their own agenda and will use people like Dr. King to support their agenda. Quoting Dr. King doesn’t mean much these days, especially since those who often engage in oppression are the first to quote the civil rights leader.

If we look at the totality of Dr. King’s life and work, we clearly see that he was in favor of challenging systems of oppression and power and that includes police departments. It is insulting and offensive for the GRPD to quote Dr. King when we know that for decades the police intimidated, harassed, infiltrated, arrested, beat and even killed those involved in the Black Freedom Struggle.

Then there is the image that the GRPD uses, an image which includes a few Black entertainers, but mostly Black people who have been at the forefront in the fight for justice and liberation.

There are two people from the 19th century abolitionist movement, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Both Tubman and Douglass were targeted by police, security agents and other enforcement entities of the state. In fact, those who were involved in the Underground railroad were seen as an enemy of the state.

Then you have the images of Dr. King and Malcolm X. Both of these men were part of the larger Black Freedom Struggle and both of them were personally harassed, wiretapped, targeted and arrested by law enforcement. Both of these men were assassinated and while we can debate who specifically pulled the triggers in the killing of Malcolm and Martin, it is clear that local law enforcement and the FBI were either involved or complicit in their deaths.

The image of Muhammad Ali might seems rather innocuous, since many saw him as merely an athlete. However, Ali, apart from his involvement in the Nation of Islam, was a draft resister and a dedicated activist/organizer against the US war in Vietnam. Ali refused his induction into the US military and was promptly arrested by cops for doing so. In addition, while Ali was stripped of his boxing title, he spent the better part of two years traveling around the US, speaking at college campuses, churches and civic institutions against the US war in Vietnam. He did this all under the watchful eye of the FBI and local law enforcement, since anyone involved in such activities was considered an enemy of the state.

Then there is the reality of politics and oppression in Grand Rapids. The GRPD excessively patrols in Black neighborhoods and disproportionately monitors and arrests Black people in this community. We are all familiar with the more high profile cases in recent years, but we may not be as familiar with the daily activity of the GRPD to harass and intimidate the Black community.

The fact that the GRPD wants to highlight “African American Pioneers in the area of Law Enforcement,” just underscores how insulting their celebration of Black History Month is. Having African American cops intimidating, harassing and arresting Black people doesn’t make it any less oppressive than having White cops do it. All cops serve the interests of the state, which ultimately means it serves the interests of those with power.

The Acton Institute invites AmplifyGR to talk about what they are doing in Grand Rapids and there is no mention of who created the non-profit

February 3, 2019

On January 24, the far right think tank, the Acton Institute, hosted a presentation by Ashanti Bryant, the education project manager for AmplifyGR. 

Bryant’s presentation lasted only 30 minutes, which was followed by a Q & A session. However, throughout the entire event, whether it was the introduction give by an Acton representative, the presentation or the Q & A, not one word was mentioned about how AmplifyGR came about two years ago. To some this might not seem like a strange thing, but consider the following. The DeVos family has contributed millions of dollars to the Acton Institute over the past 25 years and Betsy DeVos sat on their board of directors at one time, along with her mother Elsa Prince. Betsy’s son, Rick DeVos, now sits on the Acton board. With all of the connections to the DeVos family, it would seem that at an Acton Institute event, there would be some mention of the connection between the most powerful family in West Michigan and AmplifyGR. Unfortunately, the connection was not made.

You can watch the presentation by Ashanti Bryant at this link, but it wasn’t very compelling, especially since he basically read a powerpoint presentation. However, I watched the presentation and found it instructive enough to share some analysis of what Bryant had to say. Before doing so, it is important to point out that Ashanti Bryant’s background in education is as follows. Bryant used to be a principal at Grand Rapids Christian Schools and he has been a consultant to both private and charter schools.

Purpose Built Communities

Ashanti’s presentation centered around Purpose Built Communities, the model that AmplifyGR has been pushing since its creation 2 years ago. The AmplifyGR Education Director began by quoting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, offering up two quotes that were both fairly innocuous.

Bryant then talked about concentrated poverty, plus gave national and regional statistics. He also spoke about the history of racial segregation in housing and education and cited Richard Rotherstein’s book, The Color of Law.

The AmplifyGR Education Director then talked about the 49507 zip code in Grand Rapids and referenced Todd Robison’s book, A City within a City: The Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Up to this point, the information that Bryant shared was solid and relied on great sources, but then came the punch line. There was no call for racial justice, for an end to White Supremacy or for reparations for the African American community in Grand Rapids. Instead, Bryant suggested that the way to overcome all of this historical racism in Grand Rapids was what AmplifyGR was promoting, the Purpose Built Communities model.

However, unlike the Purpose Built Communities model that has been used around the country, with an emphasis on housing, education and wellness, AmplifyGR has added a fourth component, what they call jobs and entrepreneurialism. Within this model, Bryant said that there needs to be a backbone organization, an organization that can act as an anchor for the implementation of the Purpose Built Communities model. You guessed it, AmplifyGR is the backbone organization in this case.

In many ways the Q & A portion of the presentation was the most revealing. A white guy told a story about a wealthy person wanting to move back into an area of Detroit that had suffered from disinvestment and then said that this guy was being accused of gentrification. Bryant’s response to this comment was, “We at AmplifyGR avoid using the word gentrification. We believe in a diversity of incomes living together, but we prefer to call it investing in the community.”

In response to the question about job and business creation, Bryant said that AmplifyGR plans to bring 1,000 new jobs to the area. As of today, there are 4 new businesses and 100 new jobs created, according to Bryant, but he never qualified how well those jobs paid.

The only education question that was asked had to do with whether or not AmplifyGR was pushing Charter Schools as an education solution. Bryant said that in their model, they partner with three education centers, with Heritage Academies, GRPS and Hope Academy. Both Heritage Academies and Hope Academy are Charter Schools and the GRPS is Charter School friendly.

Bryant was then asked how AmplifyGR did community engagement. He said they started out doing town hall meetings, but then said he would not recommend doing town hall meetings, since he just provided people with an opportunity to vent frustrations. Bryant said they now host resident meetings, which are small and allows AmplifyGR the opportunity to focus on the Purpose Built Communities model. Of course Bryant would say don’t do town hall meetings, because AmplifyGR was called out repeatedly during the three town hall meeting that were held in the summer of 2017

The last question had to do with how AmplifyGR was utilizing the private sector for their work. Bryant mentioned that Rockford Construction was involved early on. Unfortunately, Bryant failed to mention that Rockford Construction had purchased dozens of properties in the Boston Square and Cottage Grove areas in 2017, spending millions without resident input. 

So, you have an AmplifyGR presentation at an Acton Institute event and there is no discussion about the millions of dollars that the DeVos family has contributed to the Acton Institute, not the fact that the DeVos family created AmplifyGR and bankrolled the purchase of dozens of properties in the AmplifyGR target area, without resident input. But that’s ok, because they are in that neighborhood to “help.”

How did Michigan Senators vote on most recent version of anti-BDS legislation?

February 1, 2019

On Tuesday, the Senate voted on S.1  also known as the Strengthening America’s Security in the Middle East Act of 2019

Like a great deal of legislation, S. 1 contains several items in it, including Title IV – Combating BDS Act of 2019. The bill specifically  states: 

Nonpreemption of measures by State and local governments to divest from entities that engage in certain boycott, divestment, or sanctions activities targeting Israel or persons doing business in Israel or Israeli-controlled territories.

The bill was introduced by Senator Marco Rubio and it passed by a margin of 76 – 22. Michigan Senator Gary Peters voted against the bill, but Senator Debbie Stabenow voted for it.

The 76 Senators that voted for the bill, essentially bowed to pressure from AIPAC and Christians United For Israel (CUFI). 

The ACLU has taken a public position on this matter, not because it has anything to do with Israel, but because of the anti-free speech nature of the bill. The ACLU has stated

The bill at issue here, S. 1, would not criminalize boycotts of Israel on its own, although Congress has attempted to do that as well. Instead, it would encourage states to create laws that violate the First Amendment. These state laws would require government contractors — including teachers, lawyers, speech pathologists, newspapers and journalists, and even students who want to judge high school debate tournaments — to certify that they are not participating in such boycotts. In other words, they would make people choose between their livelihood and their First Amendment rights. In cases going back to the McCarthy era — when the government required employees to swear that they were not members of the Communist Party or engaged in “subversive” advocacy — the Supreme Court has made clear that the government cannot impose such a choice on its citizens.

The First Amendment dangers posed by these anti-boycott laws are even greater because their sponsors have made it crystal clear that they are designed to silence a particular viewpoint that is critical of Israeli and U.S. policy. As the name declares, the Combating BDS Act and the state anti-boycott laws it seeks to entrench are explicitly directed at a particular political viewpoint critical of Israeli government policies as well as U.S. support for those policies. This violates the core principle of the First Amendment — that the government cannot dictate to its citizens which causes they can and can’t support.

Beyond the defense of the First Amendment, what Senator Stabenow and the other 75 Senators who voted for S.1 essentially voted against the rights of Palestinians and their fight against Israeli Apartheid. For more information on the BDS campaign, check out the BDS Movement site here

The US Coup in Venezuela and American Imperialism: What You Need to Know

January 31, 2019

The Trump administration is calling for a coup in Venezuela. US policy towards Venezuela has going supporting both a hard and soft coup in that country since Hugo Chavez became president in 1999.

In 2002, there was a coup attempt that was supported by the US, an attempt that failed. The 2002 coup is well documented in the film, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. With the current coup attempt, the US is calling for the overthrow of President Maduro to be replaced by opposition leader Juan Guaidó.

US foreign policy towards Venezuela has been to undermine the Bolivarian Revolution that began with Chavez, but continues to be embodied by civil society in Venezuela. This US effort to thwart and independent and autonomous Venezuela began with President Clinton and continued with Bush, Obama and now President Trump.

We thought it was important to provide some solid analysis/links for what is happening right now in Venezuela, some online resources that have provide excellent information on US/Venezuelan relations in recent decades and a few book titles that provide important historical information specific to US foreign policy and Venezuela.

There has been some really good independent reporting on the US coup in Venezuela. First, The Intercept provides a great podcast on the coup, with several long-time observers of US foreign policy in the region.

The Real News Network also has two good video news analysis pieces on the US coup in Venezuela, one with the editor of the online resource Venezuela Analysis https://venezuelanalysis.com/ and a second video featuring a historian on US/Venezuelan relations. 

The Washington Office on Latin America has an excellent FAQ on the current situation in Venezuela and CounterPunch has a solid analysis piece that was posted yesterday, entitled, Trump’s Coup in Venezuela: The Full Story

Democracy Now also did interviews yesterday with long-time journalist and Latin America affairs expert Allan Nairn.  Two weeks ago, the media watchdog group, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting did an interview with Alexander Main, who is the director of international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research

Then there is an excellent article in The Nation by Greg Grandin, who has written several books on US foreign policy in Latin America. Grandin responds to a propaganda piece that recently appeared in the New York Times.

Another piece we want to mention is also from CounterPunch and provides an interesting piece on how some of the Democratic Presidential hopefuls have responded to the US coup in Venezuela.

For an excellent online resource on Venezuela, we recommend the site https://venezuelanalysis.com/, which has been tracking US efforts to undermine that country since 2003.

Lastly, here are a few book titles that we recommend if you want to big picture on US foreign policy in Venezuela and Venezuelan politics.

The Chavez Code: Cracking US Intervention in Venezuela, by Eva Golinger

Bush Versus Chávez: Washington’s War on Venezuela, by Eva Golinger

Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Miguel Tinker Salas

We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, by George Ciccariello-Maher